It was a freely made decision, a public vote, so I suppose one could argue that when I confronted my roommate and started an argument-- in between squat thrusts, jumping jacks and the occasional huffed set of stomach crunches -- that it was my own choice. But that’s not how it felt to me.
It was a stupid argument. I admit that. Jack had borrowed my favorite sweater without asking and when I saw him come through the door of our apartment with that goofy grin of his and smelling of cigar smoke I just lost it.
“You think you could ask me before borrowing my stuff?” I shot at him. I was lying on the couch at the time but even before the words had left my mouth I could feel myself being directed to my feet. Must’ve been my tone. The GRUNT software is pretty sensitive.
“You ate my cereal all week!” he shot back at me as I dipped and thrusted out my legs, lowered myself into a pushup and then leapt to my feet. Things went on like this for about ten minutes, with Jack and I slinging retorts at one another as we huffed and bent and grunted. I watched with some amusement as Jack completed set after set of jumping jacks. I don’t know why his program was stuck on that exercise, but it gave me a small sense of victory as I grunted my replies. Rivulets of sweat poured down my forehead as I made a final point about the time Jack de-pantsed me in from of his older sister at our Halloween party. I spat the complaint at him just as I switched to shadow boxing and then finally, several sets of squats. One thing I have to admit the programmers at GRUNT got right; it’s hard to argue with someone while doing squats.
I was tired by then, as was Jack, but he was less winded, breathing mostly through his nose, and I grew annoyed that his workout plan had been easier than mine. It was out of both of our hands, though, so there was little point in discussing it. In the end we just sat on the couch, sweating and watching the Cubs lose.
I’m in pretty good shape these days so arguments with my roommate (and the calisthenics they bring) don’t tax me that much. What disturbs me about it is the loss of control. When that program starts you feel possessed. You can hear a gear of sorts switch in your mind, like a railroad changing tracks. There’s this connection between your mind and your body that goes offline and this half-second where your muscles go loose and you’re expecting to tumble to the ground in a heap. But you don’t, because inside of you is a personal trainer, a task masker, an idealist, someone who wants civility at all costs - someone who knows that it’s hard to argue with another person while doing calisthenics.
Government media executives have described the feeling as meditative, as floating outside of yourself, but the truth is that it’s more like falling down a flight of stairs.
“That’s what we strive for,” says Johnson Davies, CEO of GRUNT the contracting firm that handles both the nerve sensor installations and the software. “We are a race dedicated to civility. And good health.”
I can do about fifty pushups in a row these days, which isn’t too bad, but my fitness is nothing compared to my boss'. His muscles bulge under his sport coat at meetings, and we’ve nicknamed him “Lurch” due to the way his massive shoulders make it appear that he has no neck whatsoever. I write copy and try not to be confrontational. He keeps an ever expanding free weights set in his office, his tiny desk squeezed into a corner to make room for his workbench and giant metal plates. The last time I walked by his office he was barking into his cell phone and doing preacher curls, sweat stains blooming in his armpits as he argued with whomever was on the other end of the line.
At lunch, I sit by myself. It’s difficult to eat and argue in general, but if your program is stuck on jumping jacks or lunges, good luck. I’ve seen people trying to wiggle a slice of pizza into their mouth while doing dance cardio. It may be good for your health, but I still find it embarrassing. So I try to keep to myself, burying my nose in a book and smiling whenever I can.
Then there are the monthly upgrades, downloaded automatically from GRUNT. A few months back the upgrade reprogrammed our sensors to monitor facial expressions and the tone of one’s voice, so you can’t fool it anymore by smiling or speaking softly. A quiet argument is still an argument to the executives at GRUNT. It certainly changed around Brad, my supervisor, who liked to hint at our utter worthlessness in this very quiet voice, a smile stretching across his face. There was something disturbing about watching him grin, and place his arm gently over your shoulder and lower his voice as his called your work garbage, your very existence a nuisance, all with this soft, earnest voice. Now he wears track shoes to work and does sprints in between insults, weaving in and out of the cubicles, stutter stepping like a hall of fame running back.
Once, after Jeanine spilled coffee on her switchboard, Brad critiqued her so mercilessly that he actually started doing inverted pushups and then spent most of the next hour walking on his hands. I had to bend down and hold my recently proofed copy upside down for him to sign off on, shoving the pen pornographically in his mouth as he maintained his handstand. I was impressed by the strength of his shoulder caps, his balance, his fury.
A lot of people no longer drive. It’s controversial, but last year GRUNT uploaded an advanced program that monitors comments muttered under your breath and certain gestures like giving someone the middle finger. Cars are equipped with an autopilot system and front seats that transform into rowing machines, that can suddenly go flat and force you to start blasting away at your abs -- all while working your forearms and grip via steering wheels that offer isometric resistance.
The guru of this entire system is a man named Johnson Davies. He’s the new Steve Jobs. He’s twenty four years old and dresses in sharp, neutral toned Armani suits and makes a lot of grand gestures when he speaks. He got the idea for GRUNT from an old television set he had as a kid, one of those thick boxes with the giant tubes that look like a detached head. The story he tells is that when he was in middle school he was hanging out in his room with one of his friends, doing pushups and insulting each other’s mother. They had their shirts off and at some point he looked at himself in the reflection of the old television, which was not turned on. The concave nature of the tube’s screen changed his physique. His tiny, feminine shoulders, normally looking like perfect church steeples, suddenly appeared thick and foreboding. His sunken chest bulged as though inflated like a balloon. The straight lines of his torso became a masculine “V.”
“Look at this,” he muttered. But his friend wouldn’t look. Instead of looking his friend insisted that he had performed a “Free Willy” on Johnson’s mother last night - a sex act where you force your lover’s head under water and then try to finish before she drowns. It was the kind of insult that crossed a line, that could start a genuine brawl. But in this case Johnson was too involved in doing squats to get angry, admiring the way his thigh and calf muscles bulged in the reflection of the TV. And that was when it hit him, that was when he had the idea that would transform America. Fewer arguments. Better health.
Johnson worked hard to make his vision a reality. He put in the time. He still puts in the time, listening to the feeds, coming up with ever more sophisticated programs. One day you come into work and realize that you can’t even raise your eyebrows at someone without entering into an advanced kickboxing routine that leaves you so winded and sweaty that you straight chug a 32 ounce lemon lime Gatorade, even though that flavor makes you gag.
And as you choke down the neon green liquid, you note that it’s the new paradigm for life, that the refreshment it provides comes simultaneously with revulsion. That by tomorrow your tendency to not drink enough water and the resulting acrid breath might be considered offensive by the programmers at GRUNT, might lead to clean and jerks with the office humidifier.
Underneath the lowered blood pressure and attractive, onion like skin that floats over our muscled citizenry, as people marvel at actually having the bodies that they have always wanted, they fear that they will lose track of how they offend others entirely. They fear that their days will become one extended workout, that in the end, the programmers at GRUNT will simply have to admit that we are all offensive.
Some have argued we are sacrificing our free will for increased muscle tone and lower rates of diabetes. That while our well conditioned lungs and strong hearts soar, our soul is withering through lack of use. But Johnson Davies shrugs off such criticism.
“Free will?” he scoffs? “How much of it do you really need, anyway?” And although it seems like a rhetorical question, he has an answer. But it’s one you’ll have to wait for as most criticisms of GRUNT lobbed at CEO Johnson Davies launch him into a session of barrel rolls with reporters whose own annoyance fuels the workout. After army crawls, bear crawls and crab walks, Johnson completes his routine and steps back to the microphone dripping with sweat. He finishes his thought with a sneer, just barely able to get one more idea out before launching into Superman pushups. “Free will?” he sneers. “It’s no different than before. We’ve got just enough to make it interesting.”
I took the train home and walked to my apartment from the station, stopping to buy a six pack of beer at First Liquors. The guy behind the counter was sweating like a mad man and toweling his face off with a dirty rag. We barely looked at one another as I made the purchase.
Then something interesting happened. As I emerged onto the street a driver doored a bike messenger. The messenger flew over the handlebars, then skidded across the curb and onto the sidewalk. The driver got out and apologized profusely. She was one of those kind, grandmotherly types that were still sort of pudgy and pear shaped. She called 911. She offered to buy him a Starbucks while they waited for the ambulance. I’d never seen someone so sorry. She waited with the biker, squatting uncomfortably next to him on the curb and every few minutes offered to buy him something: hot tea, biscotti and at one point, a Happy Meal from a nearby McDonalds. The biker just shook his head stiffly, his arm bent at an unnatural angle, his face pulled into a painful sneer. I knew that was going to be trouble, but was still sort of surprised when the biker quit cradling his arm, grimaced sharply and started up a Tai Chi routine, his crooked arm dangling horrifically at his side as he switched smoothly from one position to another, all while screaming in pain -- and in all fairness to the programmers at GRUNT -- anger.
The grandmotherly driver tried to stop him, but she lacked flexibility and muscle tone in a way only the kindest and most non-confrontational of people lack these things. There was little she could do physically and nothing the biker himself could do to override the software. His Tai Chi routine was graceful, mesmerizing and excruciating. Finally, several bystanders couldn’t take it anymore, the ineffectual pleading, the painful yet elegant movements. They tackled him, pinning the injured biker to the ground, his screams rising from the pile and hanging in the air like smoke. Pain? Humiliation? The psyched up grunts of someone finishing a max set on the bench press? It was tough to say for sure.
I quickened my pace and rounded the corner, heading for my apartment building, then sprinted up several flights of stairs, the beer bottles clinking as I approached my floor. I dug in my pockets for the keys, but couldn't quite get them out. A sudden anger welled up in my chest at the awkwardness of everything, of handstand pushups and jumping jacks and graceful Tai Chi movements. The thought of it all made me wince. I fought against these feelings the way one fights not to vomit in public, hoping I would make it, that I could fish the keys out without dropping them, without the flimsy bag from the liquor store tearing open, without ripping off the scab on my knuckle from an accident with the cheese grater a few days earlier, without some sound or movement that would set off the GRUNT software.